After the U.S. joined its allies in April of 1917 to fight in World War I, 16 army training camps were established across the United States, including Camp Gordon in Chamblee, Ga. The first recruits of Camp Gordon arrived on Sept. 5, 1917. Sports events and teams quickly became part of military camp recreation.

Camp Gordon soldiers 1918

Lt. Howard Berry, 1917 captain of the University of Pennsylvania football team, gives instruction to Camp Gordon soldiers in 1918.

In the fall of 1917, the Camp Gordon 11 football team was formed. Nine team members had previously played on a college football team. The Camp Gordon 11 played Oglethorpe College in October of 1917 and won 54 to 0. (Atlanta Constitution, October 25, 1917, “Gordon’s Team Shows Great Class Presbyterians Didn’t Have a Chance”)

The next year brought many changes as military camps across the country were hit hard with Spanish Flu. According to the CDC, the first Spanish Flu cases appeared at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kan., in March of 1918. In April, 18 cases of influenza and three deaths in Kansas were reported.

John M. Barry, who wrote “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” says the 1918 influenza did not originate in Spain. Countries participating in World War I were censoring the press, but Spain was not, so Spain received the blame. Unlike COVID-19, the influenza of 1918 was more deadly for the 20-40-year old age range. Barry’s research indicates this may have happened because their strong immune systems overreacted to the virus.

On Sept. 29, 1918, the Atlanta Constitution ran two articles on the front page with opposing stories. The first article, “No Trips in October for Football Elevens” reported that Student Army Training Corps Colonel R. L. Rees had placed restrictions on football. During October, football could only take place on Saturday afternoons. This meant travel to another city was not possible. Teams would be allowed to travel Friday evening through Sunday beginning in November.

Below the first article, “Military Football to Fill Vacancy Here” told how over 200 men at Camp Gordon had applied to be on their 1918 football team. Lt. Messer would lead the team, which was scheduled to have their first game on Oct. 12. The article states, “Atlanta football fans are not going to be without their football this season, despite the announcement appearing elsewhere on this page…” Military baseball had recently filled a gap and now football was to do the same. Games were planned for Grant Field at Georgia Tech and Ponce de Leon Park, home to the Atlanta Crackers.

The same September 29 issue of the Atlanta Constitution reports 1,893 cases of Spanish Flu at Camp Gordon. It reported 962 men were hospitalized. As soldiers shipped out to fight overseas, they carried the virus with them.

The first 1918 game for Camp Gordon on Oct. 12 was played on a new field at the camp, against the Stormy Petrels of Oglethorpe University. The organizers had hoped to have a large crowd from Atlanta attend the game, but a quarantine had been put in place at Camp Gordon. Only those stationed at the camp could attend. (Atlanta Constitution, October 12, 1918, “Gordon to Open Against Petrels Today”)

Georgia Tech played the Camp Gordon football team on Oct. 26, 1918, winning 28 to 0. A former Georgia Tech player, Everett Strupper, now played quarterback for Camp Gordon. During halftime, the Camp Gordon drill platoon and bayonet guard put on displays of their recently learned skills. Cheerleaders were prohibited by Georgia Tech, as it was believed cheering could spread the virus.

Rachel Bachman, in her Sept. 3, 2020 Wall Street Journal “The Reason Football Played on in 1918,” says the 1918 government believed, “the game could help build aggressiveness to fight and the grit to endure grinding days in the trenches of France.” Woodrow Wilson, who never publicly commented on the Spanish flu, said “It would be difficult to overestimate the value of football experience as part of a soldier’s training.”

Thank you to Edward Shevenock for sharing this Wall Street Journal article and many other resources for World War I and Camp Gordon history. George Shevenock, Edward’s grandfather, was stationed at Camp Dix in New Jersey and later at Camp Gordon. He served in the 326th Infantry, 82nd Division and left New York to go overseas in April of 1918.

You can email Valerie at pasttensega@gmail.com

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